“The battle for good governance is eternal,” says Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Nicu Popescu, and as a part of the country’s governing coalition that came to power in June 2019, he is continuing to experience this firsthand.
As Foreign Minister, Popescu has been working with Prime Minister Maia Sandu (of the pro-E.U. ACUM Bloc) to re-open communication channels with the European Union and institutions like the International Monetary Fund, as well as restoring their financial support for Moldova. Meanwhile, the country’s President, Igor Dodon (of the pro-Russian Socialist Party), has continued to develop his relationship with Moscow.
But despite the governing coalition continuing its attempts to balance the pro-E.U. and pro-Russian platforms of its respective constituent parties, the West has new hopes for Moldova implementing reforms to the justice system and fighting corruption. That being said, Popescu thinks there’s still a long way to go before Moldova will meet E.U. standards. “We, as a country, have missed many chances to become a functioning European state,” the country’s Foreign Minister said.
To find out more about the future of Moldovan foreign policy, Hromadske’s partner outlet Ziarul de Gardă (ZDG) spoke to Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, about the new coalition government, E.U. accession, the Transnistrian settlement and more.
Ziarul de Gardă: Do you think you have succeeded in implementing the reforms promised at the beginning of the term?
Nicu Popescu: The change of Government that took place in Moldova this year was an unprecedented one, which is why we, as a governmental team, had a more special set of priorities compared to the initial priorities of other governments before us. In the first week, we had to resolve a problem that none of our predecessors had. If you recall, we had to convince the former power, which had lost the parliamentary majority, to withdraw from the government. In this regard, during the first week, we focused on mobilizing external support and providing diplomatic interventions facilitating the peaceful transition of power in Chișinău. And we succeeded.
Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Nicu Popescu speaks to Ziarul de Gardă. Photo: Ziarul de Gardă
There was [also] a major emergency related to the budgetary status of the country. Previously, certain commitments had been made regarding salary increases, which were not provided for in the revenues from the budget of Moldova. We were able to obtain external financial support to ensure that wages be paid on time. We had to open more doors, as the E.U. had previously suspended assistance for Moldova. And some of the U.S. assistance had been frozen too. Day by day, we had to unblock the relationships that several European states and institutions had suspended during the former government.
Our external partners were well aware of what was (and remains) Moldova’s main problem: a high degree of corruption. The partners knew that the state institutions, instead of fighting corruption, were actually contributing to corruption. The main message through which we, the Government, have become credible in the West is that we admit to the previous problems and want to solve them. This battle against corruption will not be easy and may take many years. Our Western partners support us and believe in the determination of the Chișinău Government to fight corruption and promote reforms in justice. In such conditions they will continue to support us as long as the parliamentary majority, the Government, the Presidency will work in unity for this. But, I repeat, it will not be easy.
ZDG: You mentioned that the parliamentary majority, the Government and the Presidency will work in unity. It happens, however, that in their statements, their visions differ…
Popescu: Yes, there are differences, but at the same time, we are part of a process of society and the political class maturing. Yes, it is sad to see political leaders making contradictory statements, catching attention, generating news headlines…[but] in fact, both the Government and the parliamentary majority support me on concrete issues of politics.
ZDG: How does the governing coalition actually collaborate?
Popescu: It focuses on issues that allow for taking common actions. [Based on] that agreement of the parliamentary majority signed on September 16, which contains 14 pages of actions. On the subjects of foreign policy, the ones that I manage, there is a complete consensus in favor of implementing the Association Agreement, in favor of normalizing relations with the Russian Federation, in favor of developing the agreement with NATO, in favor of strategic partnerships with Romania and Ukraine. So on all these subjects I do not feel major differences.
ZDG: You mentioned the Association Agreement. How long will it take before we see the results?
Popescu: The Association Agreement consists of several dimensions. On the one hand, there are these commitments to liberalize trade with the E.U. For five years, Moldova has had a free trade zone with the E.U. and, in this respect, norm benefits have been obtained. Last year, 68% of Moldova’s exports went to the E.U., while 8% went to the Russian market.
READ MORE: Op-Ed: How Corruption Kills
In recent years, we have witnessed a full integration of Moldova into the European economy. There are E.U. member states that have lower rates of trade with E.U. countries than we have. At the same time, we could not fully benefit from the Association Agreement and the free trade area because of corruption. Secondly, there are the non-commercial aspects of the Association Agreement in which we, as a state, have made several commitments: democracy, respect for the media, development of civil society. And there are commitments to implement the E.U. legislation, to transpose the legislation of Moldova and we have checked this, we have adopted laws.
It is [well] known that another problem in Moldova is that we have good laws, but they are not applied and are not respected. Regarding the Association Agreement, we were in a situation when, technically, we adopted laws and aligned with E.U. law, meanwhile, the judicial system annuls the elections in Chișinău, or the Constitutional Court cancels the functioning of a new Parliament elected democratically. And in this regard, the Europeans appreciated the fact that, technically, we passed laws, but it is insufficient under the conditions in which the country committed anti-democratic abuses. Technically, we continue to advance, but we still have much to do on the substance and spirit of the laws, so that we have European standards for the functioning of the police, the justice [system], the National Anticorruption Center – there is the next big battle for the transposition of the Association Agreement provisions in our society. I believe that, in the coming years, the main battle will take place for justice reform.
ZDG: And how long will this battle last?
Popescu: Nobody knows. The battle for good governance is eternal. What matters is the level, at what level you can stay, or, if you do not continue this battle, you find yourself at the bottom of the list. In the last [sic] years, Moldova has gone down about 20 places in the corruption perception index. In 2019, Moldova ranked 117th. I hope that, through a joint effort on combating corruption, reforming the judicial system, we can bring Moldova to 100th place, then 90th, then 70th, so that in five to seven years, we become credible to European partners. Georgia has succeeded, Romania has improved its position, Armenia is in a much more advanced place than we are.
ZDG: What steps should be taken immediately?
Popescu: Justice reform, penalizing corruption, independent depoliticized justice.
ZDG: What do you say to those who wonder if and when joining the E.U. will be possible for Moldova?
Popescu: It will be possible when we do our homework. We, as a country, have missed many chances to become a functioning European state. Therefore, this theoretical discussion, about when we can join the E.U., remains theoretical because you cannot go to Brussels and say – we want to join the E.U., but we are in 117th place in the world in the perception of corruption. You can’t go to Harvard or Oxford, saying – my average is 3, but, please, enroll me. You have to work if you want to study there, the same as joining the E.U. In order to adhere, we need to apply with a credible file, otherwise, the world will laugh at us. If you ask me, yes, I want to join the E.U., but we cannot become part of the E.U. with populist statements. Moving towards the E.U. means hard work we have to do here, so that we can have institutions that operate in a way we can be proud of. I am proud of Moldova as a country, but Moldova’s institutions are a shame to most of our citizens.
ZDG: Will Moldova’s accession to the E.U. be with or without the Transnistrian breakaway region?
Popescu: Moldova is already an integral part of the E.U. economy, which is valid for the Transnistrian region. The Free Trade Agreement applies in the Transnistrian region too. Even though from a political point of view, they say something else, the Transnistrian region has already chosen to approach Europe because this is the geography, because the E.U. market is the biggest that wants to buy what Moldova, including the Transnistrian region, produces. And in this regard, when we make progress towards European integration, I am sure, our fellow citizens from the Transnistrian region will follow us as they have followed us until now. Another example is visa-free travel in the E.U. Have you met Transnistrians who have a Moldovan passport and say – I do not want to travel without visas to the E.U.? When there is an opening from the E.U., I do not see any difference between the citizens on the two banks of the Nistru River.
ZDG: Is Moldova ready to accept a solution to the Transnistrian problem?
Popescu: Our society is very divided on the Transnistrian subject. The parliamentary majority, as well as the political parties, have divided opinions on the concrete ways of resolving the Transnistrian conflict. At the same time, I see that our society is consolidated in the desire to fight corruption and we, as a society, should make sure that we do not disperse our efforts on subjects that divide us. On the Transnistrian subject it is important to continue the actions of confidence building, meetings, negotiations in the “5+2” format. It is important to continue the dialogue with the Russian Federation. My feeling is that we, as a society, have not yet come close to an integrated and consensual approach to how we can solve this problem. It is important to focus on the issues that unite us.
The idea that a [single] political force holds the key to solving the Transnistrian problem is absurd. No person, no separate, autonomous state holds the key to resolving this conflict. This conflict requires multiple keys and one of the keys to solving the Transnistrian conflict is in Chișinău. But there are other keys – in the West, in the East, at our neighbors, and in Tiraspol. In the settlement of any conflict, it is the ability of the mediators, of all parties involved, to find a moment when all these actors turn the key simultaneously that counts, so that the door can be opened. In other words, the Transnistrian conflict cannot be solved by a single actor.
Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Nicu Popescu speaks to Ziarul de Gardă. Photo: Ziarul de Gardă
ZDG: Moldova’s strategic partnership with both Moscow and Washington, how should it be understood? How is it possible?
Popescu: Moldova has several strategic partnerships. Very often, the quality of these partnerships differs. Some partnerships are easier, others more difficult. Talking about the partnership with Moscow, we know that, over decades, we have accumulated many problems with the Russian Federation – the Transnistrian conflict, the presence of Russian troops, embargoes, as such our diplomatic dialogue is quite difficult, which affects our relationship.
In the last 15 years, Moldovan-Russian trade has been in a continuous, even dramatic, decline. Exports to Commonwealth of Independent States markets fell by 500,000 euros. Partnership statements are important, but if you look at the files from which these partnerships are formed, we find that we have very complicated files here. At the same time, it is in our interest to discuss these issues, to do it in a diplomatic, respectful, but direct manner, so that we can promote our point of view and, above all, reopen access for exporters to the Russian market. If we reopen exports, we will be able to create more jobs at home, increase wages, especially in villages, where agricultural goods are produced.
We have a different kind of partnership with Washington. We do not have so many difficult subjects, on the contrary, we receive economic assistance from the U.S., supporting us also in international financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, UN, OSCE. The agenda of collaboration with the U.S. is a positive one. We develop a strategic partnership with Romania too, as well as with Ukraine, the types of discussions and collaboration being different, and it absolutely normal.
ZDG: Does the conflict in Ukraine affect Moldova’s security?
Popescu: Conflicts have always been a danger to border countries. We also suffered from this conflict, showing solidarity with our neighbors, who have encountered a problem that we have been facing for a long time. There were also clear negative effects for our economy, for exports. And, yes, this conflict creates economic, political, commercial, image problems. If you are an investor who manages a business in New York and you look at the map and there is war in Ukraine, you can understand that the whole region is unstable and you choose to go with the money elsewhere. Yes, this conflict creates problems for Ukraine, but also for us – we are perceived as an area of instability.
/ This is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Hromadske’s partner Ziarul de Gardă. Adaptation courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.